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From the From the Vice Presidents column of the October 2009 issue of Perspectives on History

Historical Perspectives on Same-Sex Marriage: An AHA Miniconference at the 124th Annual Meeting

Karen Halttunen, October 2009

Marriage, wrote historian William Alexander in 1779, “is so far from having been an institution, fixed by permanent and unalterable laws, that it has been continually varying in every period, and in every country.”1 Alexander’s recognition of the historical contingency of marriage is being confirmed by a growing body of scholarship exploring marriage, sexuality, and domestic unions across time and space. The next annual meeting of the AHA, to be held in San Diego in January 2010, will feature a threaded miniconference, “Historical Perspectives on Same-Sex Marriage,” which will highlight this recent scholarship and explore its implications for the contemporary debate over same-sex marriage. Supporters of Proposition 8, which in November 2008 banned same-sex marriage in California, argue that Prop 8 “restores the definition of marriage to what ... human history has understood marriage to be.”2 “Historical Perspectives on Same-Sex Marriage” will challenge this ill-informed misuse of the past by presenting a history that does justice to the complexity of human experience over time. At the San Diego meeting, one or more sessions on this topic will meet during each major time slot of the four-day convention, and a special presidential plenary on the theme has also been scheduled for Saturday evening.

This miniconference will also serve as an alternative to boycotting the Manchester Hyatt Hotel in San Diego. At the AHA Business Meeting in January 2009, a resolution was presented to boycott the Hyatt because its owner had contributed $125,000 in support of Prop 8. The resolution was defeated after opponents argued that the boycott would cost the AHA approximately $800,000 in cancellation penalties without financially damaging the hotel owner (who might actually profit from a cancellation, should he resell the rooms we vacated). An alternative resolution was then passed, to form a working group that would collaborate with the 2010 Program Committee and the AHA’s LGBTQ Historians Task Force “to create a series of sessions and special events that will address issues of equity and place questions of marriage and family in historical perspective.” The adopted resolution pledged to set aside at least $62,500 (and up to $100,000) of AHA funds to support these initiatives, and to arrange press coverage and invite public participation to publicize the AHA’s position on equity and equal rights. As charged by the Council and AHA President Laurel Thatcher Ulrich, the working group developed special sessions on the subjects of marriage, sexuality, and the changing social constructions of domestic unions.

The working group’s goal was to set the issue of same-sex marriage in broad historical perspective: chronologically, geographically, and thematically. The miniconference will feature papers on “quasi-marital unions” in medieval Europe, African gender identities and marriage patterns in New World slavery, the politics of marriage in early America and colonial India, male couples during the era of the “Boston marriage,” and recent debates over same-sex marriage in South Africa, Canada, and the United States. One central theme running through the miniconference will be the relationship between “marriage” and the larger power structures embedded in nationalism and imperialism, colonialism and post-colonialism, racial formations and gender hierarchies, and the uses of marriage restrictions to implement different visions of “social order.” Many of the panels take a comparative, transnational, or global approach. And two panels honor major figures in the field. “A Roundtable in Celebration of Blanche Wiesen Cook” will pay tribute to her prolific career, not only as a leading historian of civil rights, gender, and sexuality, but as an activist who has combined scholarship and politics into a model of the public intellectual. “Thinking About Race, Sexuality, and Marriage: A Roundtable on Peggy Pascoe’s What Comes Naturally: Miscegenation Law and the Making of Race in America” will explore the wider applications of this prizewinning book, which demonstrates the importance of state regulation of marriage to the development of white supremacy and heterosexual marital “norms.” The miniconference will also feature a screening of the documentary An Island Calling, about the double murder of a gay male couple on Fiji in 2001, and a talk by John A. D’Emilio at the breakfast meeting of the AHA Committee on Women Historians.

While aiming for a broad historical perspective, this miniconference includes several panels focused on the recent history of same-sex marriage. “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell, Don’t Marry” will examine the complex historical relationship between the debate over gays in the military and the controversy over same-sex marriage. “Gay Marriage and Proposition 8: Reflections” will assess last year’s political upheaval in California from several different angles: the postwar history of liberal Protestant support for same-sex marriage; recent state efforts to link the promotion of “healthy marriage” to public welfare programs; the historical connections between Proposition 8 and two earlier California propositions opposing fair housing and homosexual teachers; the decision of some lesbians and gay men not to marry after same-sex marriage has been legally recognized; and the status of same-sex marriage and domestic partnership legislation in countries beyond the United States. “Land of the Free and Home of the Brave: Same-Sex Marriage in Canada” will examine the successful movement for same-sex marriage in Canada with comparative attention to the United States.

The centerpiece of the miniconference will be a presidential plenary, “Marriage on Trial: Historians and Lawyers in Same-Sex Marriage Cases,” chaired by AHA President Laurel Thatcher Ulrich. This Saturday evening session will address the reciprocal relationship between historical and legal arguments in cases challenging the exclusion of same-sex couples from marriage in the United States. George Chauncey will discuss his role as lead author of the historians’ brief in Lawrence v. Texas, which persuaded the U.S. Supreme Court to change its understanding of sodomy, and set the model for historians’ briefs in same-sex marriage cases. Nancy F. Cott will reflect on the challenges facing historians who value nuance and ambiguity when they engage in debates that value absolute certainty, and will talk about her role in the first historians’ brief in a same-sex marriage case (in Massachusetts) and in additional cases in Washington and Iowa. Legal scholar Joan Heifetz Hollinger will consider how family and constitutional law scholars have drawn upon historical and social science research to argue that marriage laws excluding same-sex couples are unconstitutional. And Linda Kerber, who has contributed to historians’ briefs in same-sex marriage cases in Massachusetts, New York, New Jersey, and Iowa, will argue that historians’ briefs have made possible a new public history of marriage and sexuality, enriching our understanding of the social and legal history of each state, and of the history of gender relations in the United States.

A summary list of the sessions threaded through the miniconference is on the opposite page. Details on the sessions can be seen in the meeting Program and will also be available on the annual meeting web pages at www.historians.org/annual.

As indicated in the annual meeting Program, this special miniconference represents the work not only of the Working Group for Historical Perspectives on Same-Sex Marriage, but a number of other divisions and committees within the American Historical Association. Session sponsors include, from the AHA, President Laurel Ulrich, the Research Division, the Professional Division, the Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, Transgender, and Queer Historians Task Force, the Committee on Women Historians, and the Committee on Minority Historians. In addition, the sessions have also been cosponsored by the AHA affiliates, the Committee on Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, and Transgender History, the Coordinating Council for Women in History, and the Conference on Latin American History.

The members of the AHA’s Working Group for Historical Perspectives on Same-Sex Marriage include Kristin Hoganson (University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign) representing the 2010 Program Committee, Leisa Meyer (College of William and Mary) as co-chair of the AHA’s LGBTQ Historians Task Force, James Green (Brown University), and the three AHA vice presidents: David Weber (Southern Methodist University) of the Professional Division, Iris Berger (University of Albany, SUNY) of the Research Division, and Karen Halttunen (University of Southern California) of the Teaching Division, who chaired the group.

Events in the AHA Miniconference, “Historical Perspectives on
Same-Sex Marriage”

The working group formed consequent to the resolution adopted in 2009 has created a threaded miniconference to be held during the 124th annual meeting to explore historical perspectives on same-sex marriage. The miniconference features special events and sessions on the subjects of marriage, sexuality, and the social constructions of domestic unions.

The working group’s goal was to include histories of marriage and sexuality that range across historical time, geographic space, and thematic focus. There has been a significant expansion of historical scholarship in recent times on the subjects of marriage, sexuality, and the social constructions of domestic unions. The following sessions and events were developed to feature some of this cutting-edge scholarship that illuminates and expands understanding of these complex and historically contingent institutions and practices.

Details about the sessions and events listed below can be seen in the Annual Meeting Program under the specific session or event (on the pages indicated parenthetically), and can also be read online at www.historians.org/annual.

Thursday, January 7

3:00–5:00 p.m. Hyatt, Manchester Ballroom G. Land of the Free and Home of the Brave: Same-Sex Marriage in Canada, sponsored with the AHA Professional Division, the AHA LGBTQ Historians Task Force, and the Committee on Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, and Transgender History (p. 37)

Friday, January 8

9:30–11:30 a.m.
Hyatt, Manchester Ballroom G
.
Marriage, Race and Sexuality in the Atlantic World
, sponsored with the AHA Research Division (p. 47)

9:30–11:30 a.m.
Hyatt, Elizabeth Ballroom D
.
Roundtable in Celebration of Blanche Wiesen Cook, sponsored with the AHA Committee on Women Historians (p. 47)

2:30–4:30 p.m.
Hyatt, Elizabeth Ballroom D.
Gay Marriage and Proposition 8: Reflections
, sponsored with the AHA Professional Division, the AHA LGBTQ Historians Task Force, and the Committee on Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, and Transgender History (p. 58)

2:30–4:30 p.m.
Hyatt, Manchester Ballroom C
.
The Politics of Marriage in Comparative Perspective: Imperial Legacies in Early America and Colonial India (p. 58)

4:30–6:30 p.m.
Hyatt, Randle Ballroom D
.
Screening of An Island Calling
, sponsored with the Committee on Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, and Transgender History
(p. 67)

Saturday, January 9

7:30–9:00 a.m.
Hyatt, Elizabeth Ballroom E
.
Committee on Women Historians Breakfast
(p. 71)

9:00–11:00 a.m.
Hyatt, Manchester Ballroom G
.
Access Denied: Comparative Biopolitical Perspectives on Marriage Restriction, sponsored with the AHA Professional Division (p. 72)

9:00–11:00 a.m.
Hyatt, Elizabeth Ballroom A
.
A World of Hurt: Medieval Marriage Practice and Law in a Century of Crisis (p. 72)

11:30 a.m.–1:30 p.m.
Hyatt, Elizabeth Ballroom A
.
Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell, Don’t Marry

(p. 81)

11:30 a.m.–1 p.m.
Hyatt, Elizabeth Ballroom F
.
Male Couples and the Meanings of Same-Sex Love in Turn-of-the-Century Europe and America
, sponsored with the Committee on Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, and Transgender History
(p. 81)

2:30–4:30 p.m.
Hyatt, Manchester Ballroom C.
Marriage, Gender, and Sexuality in Transnational Perspective
, sponsored with the AHA Research Division (p. 90)

2:30–4:30 p.m.
Hyatt, Manchester Ballroom B.
Inter-Ethnic Marriage in American Comparative Perspective (p. 90)

8:00–10:00 p.m.
Hyatt, Elizabeth Ballroom F
.
Plenary Session of the Working Group: Marriage on Trial: Historians and Lawyers in Same-Sex Marriage Cases

(p. 102)

Sunday, January 10

8:30–10:30 a.m.
Hyatt, Manchester Ballroom D
.
Thinking about Race, Sexuality, and Marriage: A Roundtable on Peggy Pascoe’s What Comes Naturally
, sponsored with the AHA Committee on Minority Historians and the Coordinating Council for Women in History
(p. 103)

—Karen Halttunen (Univ. of Southern California) is vice president of the Teaching Division of the AHA and chairs the AHA’s Working Group for Historical Perspectives on Same-Sex Marriage.

Notes*

1. William Alexander, The History of Women, From the Earliest Antiquity, to the Present Time, vol. 2 (London: W. Strahan and T. Cadell, 1779), 240.

2. www.protectmarriage.com/about/ballot-arguments, consulted on September 3, 2009.

*Due to a printing error, the footnotes were accidentally omitted in the print edition; we regret the error.